As a teenager, I took it for granted that the march towards racial equality was a goal shared by all. In 1991, we saw the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and I just assumed this was celebrated by everyone. My mother’s youngest sister had married an Indian man and the whole of his family had been embraced by our clan. My eldest brother’s longterm girlfriend (later his wife) was born in the Caribbean. A Nigerian family attended our local church, where banners celebrating equality were found hanging from the walls. I thought the majority of people believed in this brotherhood of man.
Of course, I’d heard teachers at my school making racist remarks and witnessed behaviour which I assumed was racially motivated, but based on my personal life experiences, I had assumed they were an eccentric minority. It was true that a friend of mine was regularly picked on by teachers for no apparent reason. My oboe teacher too had told me that a talented bassoonist she taught left our school due racist bullying by his sports teachers. I knew that undercurrent existed, but I was convinced it was a minority worldview: that ours was an enlightened generation.
Perhaps that was why I was viewed with such skepticism when I left school and went to college. I was one of only three people from my old school to go there. I knew nobody and simply made friends with anybody who smiled at me, ignorant of any racial divides that may have formed in the feeder-schools of the city. I had a group of English friends and a group of Asian friends, whom I’d oscillate between, depending on who was around at any given time. I saw nothing wrong with that; I just thought it was the natural order.
Of course, I knew nothing. I lived out in the suburbs, completely cut off from whatever realities existed in the inner city. My social life was orientated around a Christian youth club. For a couple of consecutive summers I had attended a Christian youth festival on the Isle of Iona, where I had mixed with people from all over the world and had participated in workshops intent on promoting the message of freedom, equality and social justice. The music I listened to promoted these messages too. I assumed we were all on the same page.
If friendship groups were divided along racial divides then, it did not occur to me. Sure, there was a corner of the student common room that was occupied only by young men of Asian and mixed backgrounds, but I thought nothing of it; I assumed they were just long-time friends. Sure, there was an annexe of the canteen which only the English students ever seemed to enter. I was an alien amongst them myself, trying desperately to fit in but utterly failing.
Admittedly, I was extremely naive in those days. For sure, I was a serious oddball then, as I tried to carve out my place in the world. My cultural awareness was virtually non-existent. I knew nothing about Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism, and knew nothing of the beliefs or cultural expectations of those brought up within these traditions. I knew nothing of the unspoken rules which governed gender interactions. My Asian companions were not much help with that either, for they too seemed to know nothing at all. Nor were my tutors, one of whom had asked me to teach two Bosnian refugee girls how to access the college computers.
The only person I had seen wearing hijab in those days was an English girl, whose mother was a convert. In the library, meanwhile, a young Indian man once berated me for reading a book about Sikhism, mocking me for expressing an interest in the realm of religion. “Forget all that nonsense!” he told me. I realised then that it was probably not wise to tell him that my mother was a priest.
In truth, I didn’t see religion embraced at all in those days. No, not so: one of my English friends was constantly inviting me to his church, thinking it would lift me out of my evident despair. But I was an agnostic then, still adhering to Christian morality, while gravitating towards a strict monotheism. If anything was embraced in those days, it seemed to be a racial divide — although this is only me looking back, for I wasn’t cognisant of it at the time.
Personally, I wasn’t conscious of any kind of racist undercurrent at the college, but then I hardly had any friends. I was finding it hard enough to fit in myself, arriving there as a complete stranger. I thought I was being rejected by my peers because they knew I had come onto college from a private school mostly populated by overprivileged rich kids (which was true). With the exception of three friends, my white English peers seemed to have no time for me at all, and some seemed to be openly hostile towards me.
It was at college, however, that I encountered the term gora for the first time. In itself, gora just means a white person, but for me the term that was deployed seemed to have derogatory connotations. I must confess that I always took this personally as a direct attack on me, but perhaps it wasn’t; perhaps that succinct Hindi phrase had simply become a habitual shorthand for describing the majority other.
I have always had a particular understanding of what was going on at the time, which was that my interactions with female students from ethnic minority backgrounds was deemed inappropriate by other ethnic minority students. It may have started when tried to make friends with a Malaysian girl who walked home from college in the same direction as me. It may have been compounded by my tutor asking me to help those female Bosnian students in the computer room. It probably wasn’t helped by my best friend at the time — a young Bengali man — careering from one relationship with a gori girl to another.
I can’t say with any certainty that my understanding was correct, because I was so shy and awkward then that I never got to the bottom of anything. My self-esteem was in such a poor state in those days that I simply blamed myself for the attitudes of others towards me. I was convinced that it was the result of something I had done. If there were racial tensions at play, I truly wasn’t aware of them: I just took it all personally, thinking dirty gora was a response to my own behaviour.
But, really, what was my behaviour then? To see all people as my equals? To be indifferent to the colour of a person’s skin? To make friends with whoever was friendly towards me? To be helpful and kind to all I met, regardless of their gender or background. Well, of course, there were other things: I was weird-looking, naive and extremely immature, not to mention paranoid, anxious and a tad depressed.
But my biggest failing? Perhaps it was simply not understanding what was going on all around me. I had taken for granted that we were living in the very enlightened 1990s, when racism had fallen out of fashion and we were all one. Of course, I may well have just been tragically ill-informed. Perhaps I had wandered into an environment in which years of racial tension had already come to a head. Yes, there was the English majority and then everyone else, but it never occurred to me that those two groups were not supposed to meet or mix. Had I therefore crossed the line, wandering in as a stranger, oblivious to all that had occurred before I arrived? Who knows?
I don’t really know if all that I experienced then persists across society as a whole to this day. I have spent the past twenty-five years living in a multicultural milieu, where I continue to take for granted that all people are equal. My close friends are Algerian, American, Bengali, English, Indian, Kenyan, Pakistani, Somali and Turkish. I have family members from every continent. I work with colleagues of every background and tradition. I want to believe this multicultural environment is the norm, and that the vocal dissenters are still the eccentric minority.
But, of course, I know it isn’t true. When drunk just a few weeks ago, my neighbour across the street racially abused my adopted children. Old men feel emboldened to tell my wife to go back where she comes from. Racial tensions persist in our children’s school. Maulana still uses the term gora to describe the non-Muslim other. Some of my Pakistani and Bengali brethren remain perplexed that I wander amongst them and pray at their side. The dawah leaflets of the late ’90s boasting of the United Colours of Islam are all but forgotten. The racism we thought long dead has returned with a vengeance. Many communities are divided, living separate lives, suspicious of one-another.
But regardless, I still believe. I believe in the equality of mankind. I believe in the oneness of the human race. I believe that everyone has a right to a dignified existence and to enjoy equal opportunities. I still want to build that society I thought we were all working towards in my youth. I don’t want us to return to insular lives, indifferent to our neighbours. I don’t want us to be divided by those intent on sowing division. I want our children to grow up in a world where they take for granted that the march towards racial equality is a goal shared by all.
All that begins with a dream. Therefore, keep your dreams alive. Dare to dream. You never know where you might end up.